Do you need to be counted to count?

The 23-27 March session of the Post-2015 intergovernmental negotiations will focus on the Sustainable Development Goals and Targets. The choice of indicators for the SDGs is a major policy decision with long-term consequences -- nationally and globally. This has sparked ongoing discussion over whether the indicators should be technical or politically negotiated (or a combination).

Responding to a special request from the Post-2015 intergovernmental negotiation’s co-facilitators, this year’s UN Statistical Commission (UNSC) considered “Data in support of the post-2015 development agenda”. The UN Statistical Commission (UNSC) is a Functional Commission of the  Economic and Social Council on statistical matters and consists of the Chief Statisticians (heads of national statistical organisations) from around the world and is the highest statistical decision making body[1].

This year’s UNSC met from the 3-6 March 2015 at the United Nations in New York. It was a meeting between national statisticians from capitals globally. The tone was one of comradery, professionalism and efficient purpose. They approached the request from the co-facilitators with efficiency, acknowledging that the 17 proposed Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets will be agreed by the intergovernmental post-2015 development agenda political process. The UNSC were not there to comment or change them. Their role was to technically evaluate what could be counted, what was needed to ensure that monitoring implementation was possible and how to fill the gaps. They also suggested a roadmap to create concrete useable indicators noting quality shouldn’t be lost for the sake of speed.

Getting Technical

Before the Commission started, global national surveys had been conducted to analyze what data already existed in a useable format and the results compiled into the Friends of the Chairs reports (see below). The purpose was to evaluate what is being measured and what can be measured. It is worth noting that in the majority of countries, data to measure progress toward all targets under goals 3, 5, and 7 plus most targets under goals 1, 2, 4, 6, 8 and 9 are already being collected​- primarily because of the MDGs. However, for goals 10 through 17, significant work will need to be done to build an indicator framework and the capacity of countries to report against it (see Data & Development: Reality check for Post-2015 agenda?). Some of the targets have subjectively hard to measure elements and/or cannot be measured. Some data needs are new (world has changed) and require urgent attention. (More in “Statistics for the SDGs: The Devil is in the Indicators”). One statistician noted “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that is counted actually counts”.

Moving too fast…Speed vs Quality?

Prior to the UN Statistical Commission, a draft of preliminary indicators was prepared to be shared at the March session of the intergovernmental negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda. This raised a lot of concern during the UNSC with the consensus being that it was at best “preliminary proposal” and that the “development of a robust and high-quality indicator framework is a technical process that requires time and needs to be conducted in stages, including the possibility of future refinements as data sources and methodologies improve”. Additionally, the UNSC “expressed its concern regarding the presentation of the preliminary results”. However, agreement was reached that on the 18th March, the UNSC bureau could share the provisional indicators and the preliminary survey results.

On the 18th March, as requested by the Post-2015 intergovernmental negations Co-Facilitators, the UNSC Bureau[2] provided the technical report. Attached to the technical report in Annex 5 is a provisional set of proposed indicators to act as a point of reference for the debate on SDG goals and targets next week (March 23-27).

However, it is merely an initial assessment of possible indicators with the disclaimer that this is a “preliminary proposal” which should have no impact on “subsequent detailed technical discussions”. It will hopefully provide insights on what broader political decisions need to be made and act as a wakeup call by highlighting public policy, funding and institutional gaps.

What next?

In the co-facilitators letter to Member States on the 18th March, they note that next week’s Post-2015 development agenda intergovernmental negotiations will provide an “opportunity for a shared understanding on the current state of play, an evaluation of progress and the possible timeline”.

On 23 March, the UNSC technical report will be officially presented during the post-2015 intergovernmental negotiations. This will include the roadmap for the development and implementation of a global indicator framework and, in particular, the suggested timetable leading to an indicator framework by the forty-seventh session of the Commission in 2016 (see Will Statisticians Get the Last Word on the UN’s New Development Goals?). Something to keep an eye on is the “presentations by individual Member States on the implementation of SDGs at the national level” on Tuesday.

Some key takeaways for next week’s post-2015 negotiations are that the UNSC report calls for a limited number of global indicators, highlights need to strike a balance between reducing the number of indicators, policy relevance and national ownership. There are also some opportunities to keep ambition by perhaps working to ensure that the suggested “integrated monitoring framework that would include global indicators and different levels of regional, national and thematic monitoring” could potentially re-inject “accountability” into the agenda (also see The “A” Word: Monitoring the SDGs). Most promising was the consensus that “it is necessary to ensure disaggregation of indicators and to include a human rights dimension to the indicator framework”.

The final choice of SDG indicators is a major policy decision. It will have long-term consequences, nationally and globally. The UN Statistical Commission has highlighted the public policy, institutional and financial questions (not just technical issues) to be tackled. What happens next? That remains to be seen. But next week could be pivotal in the balancing act between reality and ambition, between what we can measure and what we need to measure.

Read more

The development of an indicator framework for the post-2015 development agenda:  Towards a nationally owned monitoring system for the SDGs

Prepare for Post-2015 Intergovernmental Negotiations

Related UNSC background documents

Results of the global questionnaire of the Friends of the Chair on broader measures of progress: Part I: Survey of existing practices to go beyond GDP to measure progress

Results of the global questionnaire of the Friends of the Chair on broader measures of progress: Part II: Availability of indicators for Sustainable Development Goals and associated targets

Informal Note on Expert Group Meeting on the Indicator Framework for the Post-2015 Development Agenda, UNHQ, New York, 25-26 February 2015

Informal Note on Friday Seminar on Towards a Nationally Owned Monitoring System for the SDGs, UNHQ, New York, 27 February 2015

Informal Note on High Level Forum on Partnership for Capacity in the context of the Data Revolution, UNHQ, New York, 2 March 2015

Results of the UNSD/UNECE Survey on organizational context and individual projects of Big Data


[1] According to their website:

[2] Consisting of the Chairman, 3 Vice-chairmen and the Rapporteu

By Sabá Loftus, Social Watch